Rory McIlroy, who went from perennial and chronic underachiever to unquestionably the world’s No 1 golfer again in the space of one Sunday afternoon, is a definite victim of the game’s crazy shamans.
It’s our fault. Part of a journalist’s job is to pore over results and outcomes like a mad seer examining entrails and come to some sort of definite and profound conclusion.
Obviously, most of the time there’s no real conclusions other than; in sport results can be somewhat random (see Twickenham Stadium, March 16, 2019) and, specific to golf, one infinitesimal difference in an organically complex thing like one swing can have monumentally different outcomes.
Still, we all try to find trends or takes that EXPLAIN this randomness. With Rory, it’s been all this underachievement and the recent trend of Sliding Sundays. This column has been as guilty as anyone.
The underachievement thing does have some basis – Rory is much too good a player to have gone a whole year from last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational to this year’s Players Championship without winning.
But such a drought is certainly feasible through random (mis)fortune. It’s only really remarkable if we apply totally unrealistic expectations of performance, calibrated on the record of the best single player in the history of the game and his record prior to 2009.
Anyway let’s have a wee look at the Sliding Sundays, such as they are. Masters last year, 74, that’s definitely one.
There’s nothing much until the WGC Bridgestone in July, a 73. A month and a half later, there was a 74 at the Tour Championship.
This year, a 72 at the Tournament of Champions, followed by 69-69-67-72-70 (nine-under-par, cumulatively) and finishes of T4-T5-T4-2-T6-W.
If this is chronic underachievement, truly, then it’s the kind that every other player in the world would take in a heartbeat.
Yes, perhaps Rory’s standards are higher than your average Tour Joe, but this lust for a dominant figure like Tiger was in the decade before 2009 means the expectation on him is ridiculous.
(As a slight digression, the assumption that every young player from Scotland should aspire to a career like Rory’s and we’re failing in golf in this country if we don’t produce such a prodigy is equally ridiculous).
Peak Tiger – 2000 to 2004 probably – is, realistically, something we’ll never see again. In addition, the field is far deeper now than it was then (although you’d be forgiven for thinking it isn’t that great the way some played on Sunday).
There is actually plenty to pick at in Rory’s game at present. His wedge play is occasionally absymal, he’s streaky on the greens, and there are times when he over-presses and is simply too bold.
But these are fairly ordinary failings. In one respect, being too bold on the 18th on Sunday was a great thing; Rory wanted his finish pure, there was to be no reining back, no conservatism. Big stick off the tee, big approach over the flag; it made a statement when so many of his peers were toiling.
And now Rory is the No 1 player in the world again (figuratively, not literally in OWGR terms) and the favourite for the Masters in less than a month’s time.
Will we all be crushed and point the finger at him if he fails again there?
Probably, but unless he shoots 76 on Sunday from the final group again, it’s not indicative of anything other than randomness, and that it’s hard to win tournaments and championships at this very difficult and competitive sport.
The “partner” in an individual sport
It’s interesting to note two leading players at Sawgrass on Sunday and perceptions of their caddies.
Rory’s current looper is his best mate from Northern Ireland, Harry Diamond.
Jon Rahm’s is Adam Hayes, a veteran employed by Webb Simpson and Jason Dufner before he was hired by the fiery Spaniard.
Diamond, who obviously never had a bag before this one, has been getting it in the neck on social media for his boss’ perceived underachievement (see above) much in the same way his predecessor JP Fitzgerald did for years.
Just as it did with Fitzgerald, this ignores the fact that Rory is the most individual of golfers. He’s never wanted club advice, nor a debate on strategy.
He wants a yardage, some bon mots occasionally – and as Harry knows Rory better than most, I’d suggest this is what he’s best at – and maybe an observation about weather conditions. The rest is all Rory.
There was much attention paid to Rahm’s decision to try an ill-advised shot from sand around trees and over water at the 11th on Sunday against Hayes’ sound advice.
Rahm’s ball somewhat predictably went into the water, and everyone railed against him for not listening to Hayes.
But here’s the thing; this is not a debate of equals. Rahm knows what kind of ball he can hit; Hayes has an idea, and an opinion, but it’s just that.
It’s irrelevant whether Hayes was right. This is no partnership; the man who hits the ball decides. Every time.